Tag: synaesthesia

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Flavour: there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. (Or tongue, or nose, or ears…)

A couple of weeks ago, I received a press release from the Tring Brewery, which announced that their beers have been relaunched with a new look that uses ‘applied colour psychology’ to improve their appeal to drinkers.

Palettes of colours were carefully examined and one specific palette was selected to to convey the right messages about the brewery. According to research, these ‘autumnal’ tones are warm and comforting, suggesting natural ingredients and care for the environment.

It’s a clever move. And if it sounds to you like so much marketing psychobabble, prepare to have your perceptions of reality challenged.

The story reminded me of a dinner I attended as part of this year’s Edinburgh Science Festival. That the dinner just happened to fall on April Fool’s Day had no bearing on what followed, but provides a nice backdrop of incredulity – which itself could potentially play a role.

It all started when I began doing beer and music matching events.  I wrote a few years ago about experiments at Heriot Watt university which suggested that the flavour of wine – or the perception of it – could be altered by different styles of music. I took this as an inspiration to mess about pairing great beers with classic albums, the basis of an event I’ve done at literary festivals and corporate gigs a few times now. With a sound basis in science, it was an excuse to have a bit of fun and find a different way to present beers to people.

Word of my doing this eventually reached Professor Charles Spence, who spends his life looking into something called ‘crossmodal research’, or ‘multi-sensory perception’. He invited me to bring my party piece to Edinburgh’s Sensory Dining dinner. Here, 150 people had their senses challenged, and flavour was revealed to be far more complex and mysterious than anyone outside the fields of neuroscience or molecular gastronomy would have thought.

I learned far too much for one blog post, but here are a few highlights that show influencing our perceptions via colour palettes is merely the tip of a humming, red-hot iceberg. That smells of bacon.

Taste and Aroma

Most people who write about beer (and many who enjoy it) will already know that ‘flavour’ is not synonymous with ‘taste’, as we often use it to be, but is in fact a combination of taste and aroma – of which aroma makes up about 80%. 
So here’s a question: if four-fifths of flavour sensing is happening in the nose, why do we experience it – or think we do – in out mouths? It’s only by isolating nose and mouth that we can show ourselves what’s really going on, for example by holding your nose while eating. Psychologists, neuroscientists and even philosophers are currently exploring the question.
The coffee flavour wheel – but it’s not as simple as that.
I’ve always told people that if you hold your nose – or drink beer from a bottle, which is the same thing – you’re cutting out that 80% of flavour. But our first experiment gave an interesting development on this. We were given bags of Skittles, tiny sweets with intense fruit flavours. We held our noses and placed them in our mouths, and could taste nothing but sugary sweetness.  But then, with out mouths closed, we let go of our noses and the flavours flooded in, instantly recognisable as lime, lemon, strawberry etc. This is ‘retronasal’ activity – when the nasal passages are clear, air breathed in through the nose brings alive flavour which you think is in your mouth, but isn’t. You’re not ‘smelling’ it, but experiencing it in your nasal cavity via the passages linking the nose and the back of the mouth.  
Taste and Sight
It’s often been said that the first bite is with the eye. But that goes way beyond something simply ‘looking appetising’. For this experiment, we were served black ravioli, green mushrooms and purple pesto. It has to be said, it didn’t look great:
Black pasta is at least familiar, and I ‘tasted’ squid ink even if it was only food colouring. The green mushrooms were a real struggle, and the pesto didn’t ‘taste’ of pesto at all, but to me, of something quite fruity. 
This was a toned down version of a previous experiment that had been thought apocryphal, but which Charles Spence has managed to track down. In the early 1970s a bunch of people were fed a meal of steak, chips and peas under very low lighting. Halfway through, the lights were turned up and everything was the wrong colour. The steak was bright blue, and the sight of it caused half the diners to vomit, even though the steak was fine. 
Colour perception in food and drink is hardwired into our evolution. In evolutionary terms, fruit turns into beautiful, attractive colours when it is fully ripe and ready to eat. It wants to be eaten, because its seeds are then spread in the spoor of animals who move around and spread it over a wider area. 
Adding red food colouring to certain foods makes it ‘taste’ 10% sweeter.
But meat and fish are not meant to be blue. 
This reminded me of another press release I received back in March. An American company called DD Williamson gave teenagers three different drinks: one clear, one brown, one pink. They were, of course, identical apart from the colour. The respondents (81% of them) correctly identified the clear drink as having a lemon-lime flavour. The best they could do with the brown one was describe it as ‘sweet’ or ‘fruity’ (34%) with 15% saying it tasted of cola. The red one was considered ‘fruity’, ‘berry’ or ‘sweet’ by 38%, with others suggesting cola or ginger ale.    
A couple of years ago, Brew Dog and Stone collaborated to produce a ‘pale imperial oatmeal stout’. I tasted it with a blindfold at the launch of Brew Dog Camden, and was suitably amazed when the colour was revealed. 
Taste and Sound
Back to Edinburgh, and next up it was my gig. After what I’d experienced so far I was worried I might be bringing the tone down by pairing the Pixies’ Debaser with Duvel and simply saying, ‘Good, innit?’ (It is though – it really works!) 
So I decided to go a bit further. With Chimay Red, I chose Debussy’s Clair de Lune (specifically, from about 1.46 on this clip) because I thought it paired well with elegance, structure and swirling, mysterious depths (though Chimay Blue might have been better for this). I faded it out halfway through, and brought up Hendrix’s All Along The Watchtower instead, for its darkness and heaviness. Just about everyone thought the flavour of the beer changed. And 70-80% of those who did felt it tasted better with Hendrix.
But Charles Spence went one better – because he does this shit for real. He has briefed a composer to take one simple, tonal piece of music and arrange it in the style of ‘sweet’, ‘bitter’, ‘salty’ and ‘acidic’. He played each piece, and asked us to choose which flavour it aligned with. Obviously we could be back in pretentious territory here. But every time Charles does this, he gives the audience buttons to press which record their responses, so over time he’s building up a database of the choices people make. In our session, between 70-80% of respondents agreed on which piece of music went with which taste, and these findings were consistent with Charles’ norms. We may not be able to explain why, but we make consistent connections between certain sounds and certain flavours. 
Taste and touch/texture
For this course/experiment we had a nice shepherd’s pie with a leek and potato mash, and a range of utensils to eat it with. It tasted completely different when eaten with wooden, plastic and stainless steel spoons. It’s all about how the texture of the spoon influences the food. Interestingly, stainless steel, even when scratched, will react with the air and ‘repair’ the coating that prevents food tasting of metal. It’s therefore actually better than silver.  According to Mark Miodownik, the materials scientist who presented this course, we’re the first generations to be able to taste our food without its flavour being compromised.
As a tip – this is why you shouldn’t taste something from a wooden spoon while cooking – unless your guests are also going to be eating with wooden utensils, it’s going to taste different when served.
Mixing it all up – synaesthesia
This next bit is where the headfuck really kicked in for me. 
Synaesthesia, where the senses get mixed up, affects around one in 23 people. (It’s difficult to say for sure because there are so many different varieties of it and many people aren’t aware they have it.) Like many who consider themselves creative, I’d like to think I have a form of it but have never been sure, suspecting I was probably making it up. 
How synaesthetes might see letters and numbers – for some, each has its own colour
Julia Simner, a neuropsychologist and leading expert in synaesthesia, gave us each two lumps of sugar, one a cube, the other round. She told us one of them had been impregnated with a lemon flavouring and the other had not. Which one was flavoured? 
Jumping ahead, I guessed that shape would be influencing our perceptions, and that the two lumps were probably the same. I stared at them. “OK, if I have synaesthesia, the square will taste of lemon,” I thought to myself. Then I tasted them. “Oh no, it’s the round one – that really does have lemon flavouring, she wasn’t messing about. It’s really very clear.”
She then told us that neither shape had flavouring added – they were both just sugar.
So I have a crap palate then, I thought, or I’m just susceptible to suggestion. 
But here’s the thing – I went back for another taste, and even after being told there was no added flavouring to either, that they were identical, the round one still tasted of lemon – even though I knew objectively and rationally that it didn’t. 
Was she lying? Was this a double bluff? 
I put the two shapes behind my back, broke off a piece from each, swapped them around, tasted when I could not possibly know which shape each had come from – and they both just tasted of sugar, and nothing more. I looked at them again, tasted again, and the round one tasted of lemon. This carried on until I’d broken off so many bits the shapes were eroded. Eventually they were both just similar-looking blobs of sugar. The lemon flavour disappeared. 
I have no idea what practical use this newly discovered link between shape and flavour could possibly be, but it’s there, for me at least.

And totally screwing it around – the miracle berry
Finally, we were each given a miracle berry pill. This small fruit is sometimes used as a sweetener, not because it is sweet itself, but because it contains a compound which affects the tastebuds and blocks out sour flavours. 
After eating the berry, we ate a dessert of lemon and lime wedges, which tasted like fresh, sweet oranges.
The truth about what we ‘taste’ is that most of it happens not in the mouth, but in the brain. “Taste is, ultimately, just the firing of neurons,” said one of the speakers. “You don’t have to actually eat or drink to experience it.”
You can make someone ‘taste’ a roast beef dinner by opening their skull and stimulating the parts of the brain where taste is experienced (though you should not try this at home).  LSD makes people experience synaesthetic sensations. And due to advances in neuroscience and our increasing ability to map brain activity, we can now both manipulate it and understand it without sawing into people’s craniums.
All of which has amde me very nervous indeed about writing beer tasting notes.
After dinner, a few of the flavour academics and I sauntered to the bar. We were in a student union building and there was just one decent beer – Stewart’s IPA on cask. We carried on talking about synaesthesia and flavour perception for half an hour or so, and then Charles Spence noticed me frowning and grimacing and asked, “Is there something wrong, Pete?”
Yes there was. I was not enjoying my beer at all. It was dreadfully sweet. There was no hop character whatsoever, and it tasted like someone has stirred three sugars into it to compensate. I should have known better than to trust a student union bar with only one cask handle. 
Julia Simner smiled. “How long ago did you eat the miracle berry pill, Pete?”
“About 45 minutes ago, why?”
“The effect lasts for about an hour.”
Let’s hope this research never falls into the wrong hands.
Charles Spence has now thrown down the gauntlet to me to up my game in how apply some of this learning to beer and music matching. I will be attempting to do so at my next beer and music matching event, which is happening lunchtime on Sunday 18th August at the Green Man Festival. Given the amount of drugs the audience will have consumed by that time, I’m feeling pretty confident.